Perhaps more than any other style of popular music, hip-hop puts a high level of importance on regional pride and a sense of place. These days, it seems like there isn’t an inhabited place on Earth that doesn’t have a rap scene. Still, perhaps there’s a lingering sense that artists who emerge outside of hip-hop epicenters like Atlanta, New York, and L.A. are a little behind the curve. Whether that’s actually the case or not, rappers like Floco (pronounced “flock-oh”) Torres prove that out-of-the-way places also boast their share of inventive hip-hop. For some, being isolated can lead to innovation. When there’s less of an established local sound to rely on, you have less to lose by thinking outside the box.
It’s hard to pinpoint how much of Torres’s creative individuality stems from geography, but his abundant discography bears evidence to his insistence on choosing his own path. Originally from southern New Jersey just outside of Philadelphia, Torres spent seven years based in Macon, GA—about an hour from both Atlanta and Athens—before moving to Akron, OH in 2016. Equally inspired by the likes of St. Vincent and Tame Impala as the Philly-area hip-hop he heard growing up, Torres’s range of influences expanded dramatically in Macon’s familial music community, where it’s common for artists from multiple genres to play on the same bills.
At various points, Torres has recorded and toured with what he calls his Big Band—essentially a rock outfit playing hip-hop. On his new EP, Again (his 22nd release in a voluminous body of work that also includes over 600 unreleased songs), he manages to keep his sound fresh and vital. With its rolling piano loop and soulful falsetto hook (which was sampled from Meiko’s “I Can’t Tell”), leadoff single “You!,” recalls the playfulness of De La Soul’s genre-defining early work with producer Prince Paul. But the personality behind the music belongs to Torres.
Easily one of the most cheerful-sounding breakup songs ever made, “You!” reflects Torres’s knack for observing life in a dry, naturally complex way that can be simultaneously cutting and refreshing. When he chides his former lover for “playing the victim,” he’s direct without sounding malicious. He also includes several compliments, and leaves the door open for a reunion, perfectly summing up the mixed feelings that can follow separation.
As it turns out, that song is not simply about a romantic breakup. We spoke with Torres about the song’s true subject, and the importance of following your own musical path, as he was preparing for his ninth year as a youth music education counselor at the Otis Redding Foundation’s OTIS Music Camp.
You’ve got so much unreleased material, which suggests that you’re not just interested in attacking the market with volume. How do you balance quantity with quality?
[Laughs] I guess it’s that thing that all artists have, where you worry about if everybody will like it or not. I may just be more hyper-sensitive about it, so I’ll listen to something three or four times and be like, ‘Nah, that’s not it.’ I’ve got albums I’ve recorded just because I thought the concept was cool, but I didn’t think anybody would be into it. I’ll listen to it for like two months and just be done with it. I care what people think about the music. I wish I was one of those cool guys that didn’t care—or says he doesn’t care—but I do.
Well, there are those artists who are able to do what they do and filter out the response. How else does that artistic hyper-sensitivity show itself?
When I decide what part of my character I want to reveal. My stuff is more based off of my personal experiences, but I’m able to mask it sometimes in telling stories that I may not necessarily have gone through, but that you could see me going through. When I get to the point where I have 20 or 30 songs or whatever, and it’s like, ‘I’m feeling like this’…and I want that to reflect through my artwork, and in how I’m dressing, and the type of energy I have at the shows—all of that goes into what actually makes it onto the record. I kinda approach it like a role I’m playing. It helps it become more than just a process of putting out albums just to put out albums. David Bowie’s a perfect example: as an artist, I haven’t grown into the theatrics at that level, but I take a lot from his process.
‘You!’ is what one might call a celebratory breakup song. Why did you choose to give it that tone?
That tone is hilarious and fun to work with because after a breakup or a big move or a big transition in your life, that moment of, ‘Ah man, I might’ve made the right decision!’ is actually very short-lived. Before that and after that is the self-doubt. I just thought it would be really interesting to highlight that, because that’s where I was at the moment. There’s a transition that’s happening in my career and in my personal life that just kind of lined up. As an artist, there’s that battle of, ‘Why are you still doing this? You’re not as big as you thought you were.’ I’ve gone through the ‘I’m gonna quit’ thing. That doubt still comes up, but now I’m in a space of being inspired by so many artists and musicians that are in their 50s and 60s that are still creating great work. They just kept doing it because they like to do it. So the transition musically was just, ‘All right, I’ve done 21 records. Let’s completely start this over and tell this experience again.’ Maybe it’s because I’m not in my 20s anymore, too, that I feel this new fire. ‘You!’ was the beginning of that celebration of how freeing it feels that I don’t have to attach myself to the failure of ‘I haven’t sold a million records’—I haven’t sold ten thousand records. So I’m going to start from zero intentionally and take everything that I’ve learned, and do this again.
So it sounds like that’s not just a breakup with a person that you’re referring to in that song. Because there are other lyrics that sound a lot like what you said in your 2012 TEDxMacon talk.
[Laughs] Yeah, I was addressing a lot of different mindsets. This was one song where I wrote it the first time and liked it, and actually didn’t care what anyone thought. I played it for folks just to see when the beat would catch them, but I was absolutely stubborn about it like, ‘I’m not changing anything.’ But, yeah, I was also speaking about breaking up with a mindset, a city, and a notion of who I think I’m supposed to be as an artist, and how fast my career was supposed to get to a certain point, and then beating yourself up because you didn’t get there. Also, breaking up with the idea of social media being that fuckin’ important, and that anything that I have to say on there—taking selfies of myself, like, working out or whatever the fuck—none of that shit is actually important. It was just breaking up with all of that that I was carrying. I shouldn’t feel bad that I haven’t elevated myself to a point where I can buy everyone I love a Ferrari. All of those [feelings] happened to come at a time where I was making a transition out of where I was based for eight years.
It sounds like sometimes you’re—I don’t want to say scolding, but—prodding yourself.
You’re not based in Macon anymore, but you’ve now been based out of three different smaller communities that are in the orbit of cities with a very strongly-defined sense of identity. It seems like you’re attracted to places like that.
Yeah, from a community-engagement standpoint and a financial and privacy standpoint, I’ve learned about myself that there’s a level of living that I enjoy. I can actually be involved. I can have real relationships and friendships with people that have nothing to do with what I do or what they do. They’re sometimes based in that, but we create real bonds outside of those things.
In your TEDxMacon talk, you stressed how important it is that artists in cities like Macon stop thinking in terms of following the model of other cities, but instead valuing what they have and what they are and building their own mindset. Certain places have this eternal complex where they feel culture is determined elsewhere.
Frank Lloyd Wright talked about this in the ‘30s. He [criticized how] people were running downtown to cities, where all the big buildings were, because that’s where culture was. [Wright contended that “culture is not for the crowd; culture is an individual thing.” —Ed.] For me it’s kind of the same thing: early on, I did go to Philly, New York, Atlanta, and Nashville. Outside of the weird lane that I’m in, where it’s not rap enough but not rock enough, it was also the fact that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time acting the exact same way. Very quickly, it just did not appeal to me. I don’t think that I’d have the catalogue that I have if I’d stayed in Philly or Atlanta or one of these big cities, because my output wouldn’t be dictated by creating the way that I want to. It would be dictated by creating when I had to when someone was looking.
Earlier, you mentioned friendships with people who aren’t doing music. Those are vital for keep your art nourished with outside perspectives.
Absolutely. Some of my better friends over the years haven’t been musicians. They’ve also given me the most to write about, mainly because we can’t relate to each other 98% of the time. It’s kind of disheartening, at times, to be around someone that has the family and the house and all of those things. But I don’t think they know that they give me that much inspiration. It’s like, ‘What did you do this weekend?’ Oh, I played three shows and just got back—what’d you guys do? ‘We sat on the porch and drank beer.’ And then my answer is silence. But I need that for the way that I write.
So how does this reflect in the music?
My producers Shawty Slim, G!-manFantastic, and Infinite Quest and I are all listening to newer music and we’re fans, but I don’t care if something’s the sound of the moment or not. It’s more about ‘What am I trying to express?’ and they bring it out of me.
It sounds like everyone has a hand in the pot.
They do. It’s important to continue to learn how to be a leader. It’s like, ‘What am I, as the artist, trying to say? Where are we with that?,’ and in that conversation I bounce that back to them like, ‘Where are you?’ My main producer right now is B.o.B.’s DJ, so that comes with some perspective on where Slim is career-wise versus where I am. We put all of that in the pot and see how it turns out. Sometimes, that’s why the stories aren’t necessarily my stories. I can tell them in a way where I’m relating to the story, but when you hear it, you’re not really sure if that’s me or if it’s fiction.
Who’s in your band currently?
I’ve only had one drummer in my entire career, Travis Reeves. He’s the only consistent band member. I’ve had a bunch of friends and great guys that I’ve played with, but marriage, egos, self-doubt—so many human things—have intervened. I used to be really attached to the idea of my friends being on the road with me, hanging out and playing music. That’s an easy concept until we’re not getting paid every show. But my drummer loves music as much as I do, and that drives him.
On your new song ‘Age of Comfort,’ you refer to a 40-year-old driving a Mercedes and driving like he’s 25, but then you say, ‘I’m at the age of being comfortable / But my to-do list says otherwise.’ How much are you starting to feel that sense of comfort creeping up on you?
I feel it a little bit because [laughs] it’s just easy to say ‘fuck it’ and make songs in your bedroom. The rent’s paid and the lights are on and I’ve got groceries—at one point, that’s what I was asking for. It’s very easy to just talk yourself into being complacent like, ‘You know, I’ve been to a few cities this year,’ or ‘This last song did a thousand views—that’s cool.’ I realize that I’m getting closer to that age [laughs], and I could very well become that guy in the song with, like, one or two missteps and one bad decision. But the pursuit of wanting to keep getting better, that still needs to be there for me.